NC State defense concerns Notre Dame's McGraw

Anthony Anderson
Tribune Correspondent

SOUTH BEND — Muffet McGraw sees something in North Carolina State that reminds the Notre Dame women’s basketball coach of her national champions last season, and something she wishes reminded her of the Irish this season.

The former is the way the Wolfpack have been unflinching in the face of multiple season-ending injuries. The latter is how N.C. State attacks defensively.

“They’re smart, they play great position defense, their rotation is really good, they’re aggressive — they’re just a team that really enjoys playing defense it looks like,” McGraw said Sunday afternoon. “I mean, they love defense and that really helps.”

No. 6-ranked Notre Dame (23-3, 10-2) visits the No. 12 Wolfpack (22-2, 9-2) Monday night for a monster matchup in the bottlenecked Atlantic Coast Conference.

Both teams were presented a stimulating development late Sunday afternoon when No. 20 Miami rallied from 14 down to knock off No. 2 host Louisville, 79-73.

That leaves the Irish, Cardinals and Hurricanes exactly deadlocked atop the ACC with four league games remaining apiece, and State even with those teams in the loss column.

“We have an outside shot if Louisville loses to come in first,” McGraw said in a dash of foreshadowing earlier in the day.

It’ll help if ND can just lock in on the defensive side to go with its prolific offense.

While the Wolfpack, again by that McGraw description, have played like they “love defense,” the Irish have at times played like they have a “we’ll just outscore you” mentality, also as described by the coach at one point this season.

“I think they’re a little more in tune to it,” McGraw said Sunday of her players acknowledging the importance of defense after their recent losses at North Carolina and Miami, “but we’re not good at it, because we haven’t been doing it all year long.”

It seems the Pack have, especially statistically.

Along the way, they’ve also excelled without some of the key personnel they were counting on for 2018-19.

First, senior point guard Kaila Ealey suffered a season-ending knee injury in October after leading the team in assists last winter at 4.2 to go with 8.9 points per game.

Then junior guard Grace Hunter sustained a season-ending knee injury in a Jan. 3 win over Duke. She was averaging 14.6 points and 6.9 rebounds at the time.

State still won its next seven games to stand as the nation’s last Division I men’s or women’s unbeaten, before losing consecutive times Feb. 3 and 7 to North Carolina and Florida State.

The Pack then bounced back in their most recent outing to win at No. 16 Syracuse.

“They’re in a situation we were in last year,” said McGraw, whose team eventually had four players sidelined by knee injuries. “They’ve had a lot of (torn anterior cruciate ligaments), and they just keep coming back and recovering from it.”

Some of the numbers heading into Monday’s matchup suggest a “something’s gotta give” flavor.

State ranks first in the ACC and sixth in the nation in defensive field goal percentage at 34.1, while the Irish stand first in the ACC and third nationally in offensive percentage at 51.5.

ND leads the league at 87.2 points per game scored, while the Wolfpack are tops defensively at 57.2 allowed.

The teams also have some strengths in common.

State stands third in the nation in rebounding margin at 11.5, while the Irish are 15th at 8.7.

The Wolfpack have outscored their opponents in the paint in 23 of 24 games this season. ND’s done likewise in 24 of 26 games, the exceptions barely coming during losses to Connecticut and Miami.

Stepping outside, State has a pair of 3-point threats in Kiara Leslie (52-of-128 for 41 percent) and Aislinn Konig (73-of-183 for 40 percent) to counter Irish ace Marina Mabrey (55-of-118 for 47 percent).

“They have good balance, good posts, good shooters, so it’s definitely going to be a tough matchup,” Notre Dame All-American guard Arike Ogunbowale said.

Added Ogunbowale, “They’re a good defensive team, (but) we just have to play our principles and we’ll be OK.”

While Ogunbowale is averaging 21.0 points for the season to lead the ACC, the versatile and lately surging Leslie is at 19.3 over her last seven games. For the season, she’s at 15.8 points and 7.7 rebounds.

“She’s certainly one of the best players in the conference, and a really hard matchup for us,” McGraw said, “because she’s 6-1, but she can play like a guard. She can shoot 3s, she can drive it, she rebounds, (she’s their) best defender, she does everything.”

Another member of the Pack coming on is 6-foot-5 freshman Elissa Cunane. Her averages of 12.6 points and 5.4 rebounds have come in just 21.1 minutes per outing, primarily off the bench, and she’s at 23.5 points and 10.0 rebounds over her last two games.

Play4Kay

Monday’s ESPN2 game is sold out and will serve as the hosts’ annual “Play4Kay” fundraising contest.

That’s in honor of longtime Wolfpack coach Kay Yow, who died in 2009.

The Kay Yow Cancer Fund, started in 2007, is one of the country’s most recognized sports-connected initiatives directed at fighting women’s cancers.

Similar to ND’s annual “Pink Zone” game, Monday’s matchup will heartily feature that color.

The Irish will join in the theme by wearing pink shoes.

Closing in on Diggins

Ogunbowale (2,324) enters Monday’s game needing 33 points to tie Skylar Diggins (2,357) atop the all-time Notre Dame women’s scoring chart.

It’s a figure that puts Ogunbowale within striking range, but also one that is one more than her career high of 32.

“I don’t know, I’m just trying to get a W,” Ogunbowale said with a shrug Sunday of whether she’d rather break the record at home, which is where ND will be for its next outing after N.C. State, that coming Thursday against Duke.

“As long as I win Monday (and) Thursday, that’s all that matters,” Ogunbowale said.

Irish injuries

Sophomore center Mikayla Vaughn will be available, according to McGraw, after suffering a concussion in the Feb. 10 win over Florida State.

She did not travel for last Wednesday’s win at Boston College.

Freshman point guard Jordan Nixon, though, remains out after pulling a hamstring during warm-ups before the Boston College game.

North Carolina State’s Kiara Leslie (11) will get a lot of attention from the Notre Dame defense Monday night.
Notre Dame’s Arike Ogunbowale (24) drives downcourt against Florida State’s Nausia Woolfolk (13) during a Feb. 10 game in South Bend. Ogunbowale (2,324) enters Monday’s game needing 33 points to tie Skylar Diggins (2,357) atop the all-time Notre Dame women’s scoring chart.

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

WHO: No. 6 Notre Dame (23-3, 10-2 ACC) vs. No. 12 North Carolina State (22-2, 9-2).

WHERE: Valvano Arena at Reynolds Coliseum (5,500), Raleigh, N.C.

WHEN: Monday, 7 p.m.

TV: ESPN2.

RADIO: Pulse (103.1/96.9/92.1 FM).

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

NOTING: Notre Dame leads the all-time series against North Carolina State 6-1, but the Wolfpack prevailed during ND’s most recent visit to Raleigh, 70-62 in December 2016. … State is 21-1 at Reynolds Coliseum over the last 13-plus months. … Pacing the Irish are Arike Ogunbowale (21.0 points per game, 4.1 assists, 1.8 steals), Jessica Shepard (15.6 ppg, 9.6 rebounds, 60.4 percent from the field), Jackie Young (14.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.7 apg), Marina Mabrey (14.3 ppg, 4.2 apg, 55-of-118 on 3s for 46.6 percent) and Brianna Turner (13.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.7 bpg). … Mabrey’s next 3-pointer will be the 250th of her ND career, putting her one ahead of Sheila McMillen for second on the all-time Irish list. Alicia Ratay is the leader at 262. … Shepard needs 17 points for 1,000 in her ND career. Shepard, who played her first two seasons at Nebraska, is at 2,095 overall.

QUOTING: “I think everybody’s picked up their intensity. The bench has tried to help us a lot and bring intensity, but as starters and leaders we’ve definitely picked it up a little bit.” — Arike Ogunbowale, Notre Dame guard, on the team’s two games since losing at Miami.